An Americanized Peace?

Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2018 (4 Lent Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT

Have you ever been impatient with a situation, and completely exasperated with the people involved? Ever had the sense that "Whatever peace is, this place and these people aren’t it!" That’s what we hear from the impatient and exasperated Hebrews in the Book of Numbers:
The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."
The irony of this is that, the exodus is one of the times that God was nearest to the chosen people, when they were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. God was close at hand performing the most epic signs, and still the people complain to upper management about the miserable food! Let’s focus on peace this morning; what it is and what it isn’t, and how we react when we cross swords with others who disturb our peace.

For many Americans, peace is what we call living our own way without undue interference from others1. Americans avoid conflict by avoiding relationships, and we call that "Peace". Many live in single-family homes and not in multi-generational situations so we don’t have to put up with crazy relatives. You could live a lifetime in a neighborhood and never know your neighbors! Charity for many Americans means writing a check to an organization, so that you could go your entire life and never share a cup of coffee with the person who suffers from the issue the check is meant to solve. Many go to work without investing any effort to know their co-workers more than superficially, after all, there is work-life balance, so we keep strong fences between work and home. Americans carefully isolate themselves from things and people that disturb; difficult political situations, emotional situations, anything to do with death whether our own or the animals that we pick up at Stop and Shop for dinner! All of this gives Americans the illusion of peace; living our own way without undue interference from others. It avoids relationships so we can enjoy the absence of conflict.

What happens then when someone, clearly intent on evil, disturbs, disrupts, or destroys our carefully-curated American peace? What happens when we are in conflict with our neighbor? For many, there are two emotional responses; exasperation and impatience. Exasperation says that the conflict is ridiculous and impatience says that the conflict is a waste of time. We feel exasperation because WE have been making progress on whatever it is that the conflict is about, and THEY, clearly, have not. WE have done OUR part, but THOSE people are slackers and disturbers of the peace. Exasperation says "it is simply too bad that people as dumb-headed as that other crowd even exist on the planet, let alone on the city council, social club, workplace, family, tribe, or congregation." We feel impatience because our opponents drag us into a fight that wastes our valuable time and resources, and have distracted us from the important work we were supposed to do, and have left us with a biblically-large to-do list that will now never get the attention it deserves… AND we have to eat this miserable food! Anyone with the audacity to suggest that reconciliation might be a good idea, gets told that it is a waste of time because we really have more important things to do and this conflict is just a tiresome distraction anyway. I’ve been in this frame of mind before; I think the Hebrews were, and I bet you have been too.

Is THIS the peace that passes all understanding? Is this the peace that Jesus breathed onto his disciples and promises to give to us? Is the Peace of God really about Americans living their own way without undue interference from others? Is it about the absence of conflict? I bet you can guess that I think it’s about something else, because there is no such thing as peace if we mean the "absence of conflict". Reconciliation is not about replacing conflict with an American-style peace, but about the transformation of conflict into something far greater; into hope, into new life, into renewal, into healing, into human flourishing without heroin or alcohol tremors… the conflict is part of God’s peace… it is the thing that grace transforms through us. At the center of reconciliation is relationship, and nothing is more important. The Trinity of God as about a perfect relationship, and God’s relationship with creation is not a distraction; it is the Gospel. God is with us and wants nothing more than to BE with us… that’s the relationship everything hangs on, the heart of the good news of Jesus. What does that mean then about the importance of our neighbors… neighbors in whom the Holy Spirit dwells? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." Loving your neighbor as yourself is just a restatement of that idea.

There is no such thing as the American version of peace… it is an illusion intended to sell us cars, and mortgages, and insurance, and I’m as deeply complicit in that illusion as anybody. What there is, is God’s creation; a creation that is shot-through with difference and diversity. Those differences cause tensions, and those tensions cause conflict, even in a church like ours. Faced with conflict, there is fight or flight; we can fight with violence as many do, we can run away (and that’s really what exasperation and impatience is about), or we can turn to something harder; Jesus’ Third Way… the way of transformative peace, a peace that depends on relationships. And transformative peace is cross-shaped. The cross is the model for Jesus’ Third Way.

The upcoming Holy Week immerses us into this cross-shaped narrative. On Palm Sunday, the people cheer, thinking Jesus is there to launch a great military victory over the Romans. It is really a day of not-getting-it. Jesus is not there to conquer the Romans with military power, he is there to be tortured to death by them on a cross, and then, to use that cross to save them and the whole world. On Maundy Thursday, we begin the remembrance of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection; the story of what happened when God came face-to-face with humans. Try to see the events of Thursday night through Sunday as a whole pattern, rather than as isolated events, because the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the gospel model for God’s peace. It is difference, tension, conflict, and violence, followed by God’s transformation of that violence into resurrection and healing. It is foot-washing embarrassed disciples, friends sharing bread and wine even with one about to set violence into motion, praying and nodding-off in a garden, betraying a friend and running away, it is trials and politics and hand-washing, whipping and crowning, it is crucifixion and burial and an empty tomb, it is women apostles proclaiming unbelievable news, it is Jesus appearing to frightened friends in locked rooms, it is asking Peter "Do you love me?" three times to heal the guilt of his three denials. This is what reconciliation looks like; it is what God’s peace looks like, all around us if we have eyes to see, and it is deeply relational. The pattern of passion, death, and resurrection is the peace of God. The cross is all there is.

So, when we are in conflict with our neighbor2, when we are exasperated and impatient with them, are we going to walk away and pretend a false peace because we think we have more important things to do, or are we going to engage with people, and dig deeper into relationships by actually listening to the stories on each side of the conflict, to hear the struggle BOTH sides have for faith, relevance, hope, trust, discipleship, grief, mission, beauty, and longing. Do we really have anything more important to do than that? Can each side repent for its complicity in the conflict? Can each of us do some penance as a sign that acknowledges the damage each has done to the other? Can we practice forgiveness? Can we get to the point of healing the hurt? Can we finally get to reconciliation with our neighbor? Do we walk away and live an American peace, or do we engage with our neighbor in God’s transformative peace? Which way looks more cross-shaped?

1. Much of what follows is derived from Wells, S. (2015). Nazareth manifesto. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
2. See the remarkable story of "A Congregation in Conflict" in Chapter 4 of Samuel Wells Nazareth Manifesto for a more in-depth exploration about how people in conflict can navigate toward reconciliation.